Blesok no. 83, March-April, 2012
The Coward and the Beast
(Excerpt from the novel)
If ending a war is a heroic deed, then
start by making peace with yourself first.
Tho-en Kurme, Ancestors-97th statement
HARKUL shouted angrily at his family standing worriedly by the entrance of the tunnel: “Show a little courage! I’m not going to be late for this wedding because of some idiotic rumor!”
Clutching their young son’s hand, his wife Alme asked, “What if it’s true?”
The expression on her face showed that she was worried more about her child than herself. Seeing this, Harkul lowered his voice. Smiling tenderly, he said, “Okay, let’s leave this decision to our Uncle. If he’s reluctant to go through the tunnel, we’ll listen to him. Only then are we going to walk around this damned mountain. We’ll make it to the wedding at the end of the banquet – if that can be called making it there on time!”
Alme accepted rather unwillingly. If it were up to her, she would have never set off for the wedding in the first place. The thought of spending an evening with all those boring people was annoying, and entering this gruesome tunnel would rub salt in the wound. But, she did not wish to quarrel with her beloved husband. The bridegroom was one of Harkul’s best friends. She had to be understanding.
Uncle Jargol arrived panting. No one knew his age, but he had witnessed both of these young people grow up. Rather embarrassed, he said, “Old age is a malady, my dears. When I was your age, I used to climb this hill like a goat. Now I can’t even keep up with a small child.” As he spoke, he winked affectionately at the little boy holding fast to his mother’s hand.
“Don’t worry, Uncle,” Harkul replied. “We’re not going anywhere anyway. Like confused cows, we’re trying to decide which path to take. Alme insists on not entering the tunnel. She says it’s cursed and that Grisol vanished into thin air after going inside … why should I be late for the wedding just because the village fool disappeared?!”
“Not only Grisol!” Alme protested, her dark black eyes glowing like embers. “It’s true that Grisol was crazy, but Hiskot’s lambs vanished too, and they were definitely smarter than you are. The poor animals disappeared while grazing outside the tunnel. What do you say to that?”
Harkul shrugged and said bravely: “A lunatic and a few sheep. That’s all. Suppose there are jackals in the tunnel, or wolves. Even at his age, Uncle can easily kill a dozen of them. I don’t understand why you feel afraid when I’m by your side!”
Uncle Jargol coughed to interrupt, and the couple fell silent. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he said, “I think the wisest among us should make the decision. The sign of wisdom is to spare words. I suggest that we ask the quietest person here to decide.”
Stooping slightly, he stroked the little boy’s chin. “What do you say, Leofold? You know the rumors about this tunnel. Are you afraid to enter?”
Leofold stopped scraping the earth with his foot. Puffed with pride, he shouted: “I’m not afraid of anything!” Letting go of his mother’s hand, he walked toward the tunnel. “Come on, Uncle, let’s go in together. We’ll protect my parents!”
Harkul laughed joyfully. That was his son! Alme nodded in defeat. Saying no to this child was the most difficult thing in the world. Uncle Jargol was a tall man, so he was not able to walk hand in hand with Leofold. After lighting his torch, he stroked the child’s blond hair and said, “Follow us.”
Harkul and Alme lit their torches and entered the tunnel behind Uncle Jargol and their son. Harkul liked the order. If any jackals were inside – an unlikely possibility – they would attack from behind. Alme grasped her sword like a real Kadi woman. If anything happened to her child, her blade would surely land on her stubborn husband’s head before an enemy’s.
As he walked through the tunnel, Leofold was lost in thought. He had cared for Grisol deeply. He had fought with other children many times when they had thrown stones at Grisol or made fun of his lurching walk. Leofold was upset that Grisol had left without even saying good-bye. Perhaps his mother was right – maybe this tunnel had something to do with Grisol’s disappearance. He shuddered as he looked at the walls that were barely visible in the feeble light of Jargol's torch. Although he had passed through this tunnel many times, Leofold was uneasy.
Then he felt Uncle Jargol’s hand patting his head. He could trust the owner of this big hand. He had listened to many stories about Jargol. It was foolish to be afraid when he was with one of the Kadi’s greatest warriors. Leofold repeated his father’s words: "A lunatic and a few sheep …" Then, remembering Grisol’s gentle face, he felt ashamed of considering him a madman.
He wasn’t a lunatic, Leofold thought, just a little different. Whenever he found something interesting, he immediately came to show it to me. I hope he returns soon.
Alme was beginning to think that her fear had been without reason. They had already passed through more than half the tunnel, and nothing had happened. Even if jackals had entered earlier, they would not stay inside far that long. Just as she was about to share her thoughts with her husband, her son let out a bitter cry. Panicked, she rushed forward to find Uncle Jargol bending over Leofold who was in tears and sitting on the ground.
“Leofold!” she cried. “Are you all right? For the love of the gods, what’s going on?”
In a second, Harkul was beside them. “Why did you cry out, little one? What’s wrong?"
"There’s no problem," said Jargol, pointing to a big thorn that had pierced the boy’s foot. "I don’t know where that came from. It must have fallen off an animal."
"Does it hurt, my baby?" Alme asked tenderly.
Leofold shook his head, but his tears showed otherwise.
Sensing his wife’s accusing glance, Harkul said, "Can you remove it, Uncle? We can wrap some cloth around his foot and have someone examine it at the wedding." He tried to remain impassive, but was touched by his son’s tears.
"Enough!" Uncle Jargol roared. He lifted up the boy, whose head was buried in his chest. "It’s just a thorn… what a crybaby you’ve become!"
Upon hearing this reprimand, Leofold stopped crying, biting his lower lip to stop his sobs. Thankfully, Uncle Jargol’s second rebuke was for somebody else. "Who are you teach me how to dress a wound?"
Harkul felt like someone had slapped him in the face. He knew that Jargol had more scars on his body than Harkul had years.
"Walk ahead with your wife. I can’t stand having two whining idiots beside me. After I dress the boy’s wound, we’ll follow you. Wait for us outside the tunnel."
Uncle Jargol’s order was too firm to oppose. Although she was upset, Alme took her husband’s arm. As the couple walked away in silence, Uncle thrust his torch into the ground and began to remove the thorn.
"They are two grown-up kids," he complained. "You are more dependable, Leofold—that’s why you won’t scream when I pull this out."
In fact, Jargol was more concerned about the pain his wonderful nephew and niece would feel if the boy screamed. Leofold kept biting his lower lip. He would not scream at any cost.
Suddenly, the silence in the tunnel was broken by a scream – but not from Leofold.. Full of terror, despair, and pain, the distant cry echoed for a few seconds, followed by a shout for help from Alme and Harkul.
Uncle Jargol leapt to his feet. Ordering Leofold not to move, he raced off with his torch in the direction of the cries. Leofold was left alone in the dark. He wanted to follow Jargol, but when he tried to stand, he fell down in pain.
After a few seconds, he heard Uncle Jargol’s shrieks. It sounded as if the old man was shouting, "Oh, by the gods! It can’t be true!" These were the last words Leofold heard. After the echoes died down, the tunnel became as silent as a graveyard.
The little boy peered through the inky blackness in the direction his loved ones had taken. At any instant, he expected to see the light of their torches, hear their footsteps, and for this nightmare to end. But no one came, and Leofold wept in anguish, forgetting the pain of the thorn. Suddenly, he felt something near him and caught a whiff of beastly breath. A sharp claw grabbed his wounded foot, and he lost consciousness.
When Leofold regained his senses, he was still in the tunnel. He had hoped it had all been a bad dream. His foot did not hurt as badly as before. When he touched it with his fingers, he realized that the thorn had been removed and the wound wrapped in a cloth. Dazed, Leofold rose slowly to his feet and began to limp forward. Calling out for his mother and father, he slowly felt his way along the wall of the tunnel. Soon, he saw daylight, but there was no sign of his parents or Uncle Jargol. At the mouth of the tunnel, the sunlight cut his eyes like a knife, and he collapsed in a heap. Some shepherds grazing their sheep nearby rushed towards the miserable boy weeping in agony on the ground.
No trace of Alme, Harkul or of the great knight Jargol was ever found.